Early voting began Tuesday in the special election to fill the House seat of former District 36 representative and House minority leader Charles Blake, who resigned in May to become Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s chief of staff. Blake had served in the House since 2014. Five Democrats are running to fill the vacancy, and all say they are focused on improving quality of life and access to resources for residents of the large district that incorporates downtown east of Main Street south to the southeastern boundary of Pulaski County.
Denise Ennett, 42, grew up in the Pettaway neighborhood in downtown Little Rock and she and her family live in her childhood home. Her children attend Carver Elementary School, the closing of which she advocated against in 2016. Restoring local control to the Little Rock School District is a priority for Ennett, who said that if elected, she would not sponsor bills that would “hinder a teacher to do what they need to do in the classroom,” nor any bills that would “make it easy for charter schools to come in.”
“I just think that our state needs to prioritize education, and where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Ennett said. “I think if the state wanted to focus more on public education, they could throw more dollars at it.”
Ennett stays at home to navigate the schedules and needs of her three children, in addition to serving as a board member for several community organizations, including the Arkansas Parent Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters, the Historic Arkansas Museum and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Though she said she feels “homemaker” is an “antiquated term,” she “embraces” it and the flexibility it affords her.
“When I say I’m advocating for my kids, I’m really advocating for all the kids, because I’m able to go to these stakeholder meetings, I’m able to hold a sign, or I’m able to testify, or I’m able to do those things behind the scenes,” Ennett said. “And I’m not doing it for some type of reward. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Me not having to work a full-time job has given me the opportunity to do that.”
Ennett also said she’ll support another attempt in the House to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) tried and failed in a Senate committee in March to pass the ERA) as well as another effort to pass a bill establishing minimum habitability standards for rental units in the state. Arkansas remains the only state in the country without such a law.
“It’s vital to our neighborhoods,” Ennett said. “The sad thing is, if I have mold in my house and I withhold my rent, the landlord can take me to court and sue me. But the renter doesn’t have much rights to fight back, so it needs to change. It needs to be equal. It needs to be equal for the landlord and the tenant. Everybody deserves to have a clean, safe place to live.”
Ennett added that she also wants to place “emphasis” on establishing more minority-owned businesses in District 36, “especially” in the downtown area, as well as work to find ways to revitalize more of the area’s older neighborhoods.
Russell Williams III, 21, is the youngest candidate in the race. Williams is a senior at Philander Smith College, where he’s studying political science. Originally from Opelousas, La., Williams has been involved in student government on the Philander Smith campus, serving as vice president and later as president of the Student Government Association. He also completed a year of service in Little Rock with City Year, the AmeriCorps education nonprofit.
In a voter’s guide for the District 36 election, created by activist organization Indivisible Little Rock and Central Arkansas, Williams describes his priorities as “restructuring” healthcare in the state and “reinvigorating” the education system, as well as working to get more youth engaged in public service.
Roderick Talley, 31, may have the most name recognition of the District 36 candidates. In August 2017, Talley’s apartment was raided in a no-knock search warrant by the Little Rock Police Department. Talley, a barber, has since become a vocal critic of the department and the no-knock warrant practice, both of which received national coverage in a Washington Post piece by Radley Balko about how the LRPD handles drug arrests.
Talley faces a felony forgery charge in Cross County, as well as felony charges of aggravated assault against a law enforcement officer filed after he fled a court date for the forgery charge in November. He was also arrested in June for driving with a suspended license and blocking a roadway after he pulled over to film a traffic stop in Hope.
Talley said he believes his experiences in the criminal justice system make him uniquely suited to reform it — a desire which he said played a large role in his decision to run for the House seat.
“If we care about the people [in this district], then we have to show them we’re open-minded to actually creating change,” Talley said. “I feel like there’s a lot of people in the [legislature] that aren’t subjected to the laws that we’re all governed by. So, someone like me being in there, who has gone through this system since I was a teenager, and came out without a felony, I think it will offer, if they’re willing to listen, some type of discussion from somebody that’s been there.”
Instead of paying the $1,500 fee to file for the District 36 election — which was adjusted from the $3,000 fee typically required to file, since Blake only served half of his term — Talley collected the required 216 signatures. He said his goal has been to knock on “at least” 5,000 doors in his district to increase the number of voters who head to the polls.
“I’m hoping that I’ll get a big enough turn out that I can hopefully win this election outright and not have to go to a runoff,” Talley said.
But if Talley is convicted of the felony forgery charge, or any other “infamous” crime, he’d be ineligible to serve in the General Assembly.
Talley said the response he’s received in his campaign efforts has been “motivating.” In addition to criminal justice reform, Talley said he’s passionate about ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and working with people who are homeless.
“Win or lose, I won, because I came from being a victim … to taking complete control of my situation, and at the same time, almost becoming an enemy of the state,” Talley said. “I’ve been a man of the people, so I’ve felt good.”
Little Rock native Philip Hood, 47, is a former member of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, which he was appointed to by Gov. Mike Beebe in 2007. On his campaign website, Hood writes that before joining the commission, he owned an insurance business where he worked with residents and families in Central Arkansas for “more than a decade.” Hood has served on other labor organization boards, including the Office and Professional Employees International Union and the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers.
In the District 36 election voter’s guide, Hood describes education, economic development and a “living wage” as his priorities, as well as affordable health care and “safe communities.”
Darrell Stephens, 45, said his political experience working on statewide and presidential campaigns — including those of Beebe, former Sen. Mark Pryor and President Barack Obama — give him a “leg up” on his opponents.
“It makes me more in tune with the Democratic values,” Stephens said. “[There are] some things Democrats will negotiate on, and some things they won’t give on. I know the rules, the policies, what stances you can take and what you can give on. Working on these campaigns has helped me tremendously. I’ve been working in this district for almost 25 years.”
Stephens lost to Blake in the 2018 primary, but he said he’s been campaigning for the seat ever since.
“I just want to make it clear that I’ve been campaigning for 500 days,” he said. “These other candidates have been campaigning for about 25 days. I still haven’t scratched the surface of issues in the district, so it’s hard to think they could understand the district in 25 days.”
Stephens said he’s originally from Marianna, which he described as “one of the poorest” areas of eastern Arkansas. The son of stay-at-home mom and a World War II veteran, Stephens said he’s particularly passionate about advocating for seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and “working families.” He added that he’s also in support of returning the LRSD to the control of a local school board and improving health care in the state so it’s “fair and affordable.”
If elected, Stephens said he understands that going in as a “freshman” representative — “especially as a Democrat” — means he would be “limited” in his ability to create new legislation.
“I would revise some of the laws already on the table and make them better,” Stephens said. “I would either take away [from them] or add to them. They would be bills that Republicans and Democrats can come together on. … I think that’s the best thing [a] freshman [can do] to be more effective. Along with that, you can be learning the process of how things work.”
Stephens added that he feels confident he’ll be able to work “between and across” party lines in the majority Republican legislature.
Early voting in the District 36 election continues Wednesday and runs through Monday, Aug. 5, with no voting over the weekend. The primary will be held Tuesday, Aug. 6. Polls open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. that day. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff will take place Sept. 3.